It took an Australian Open championship, masterfully crafted on a sultry summer evening, to magnify Kim Clijsters' status in women's tennis and her place in history. The numbers reflect a compelling triumph, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 over Li Na, but Saturday night's final told a much larger story.
Among her competitors on tour, Clijsters is viewed with a combination of reverence and disbelief. It's one thing to balance motherhood with a full commitment to the tour; that alone is beyond most players' comprehension. She's also the best player in the world, at least until Serena Williams returns to have a say in the matter. It almost doesn't seem fair -- and some of those fellow players would be downright resentful if Kim didn't happen to be one of the nicest people on earth.
It all came together in Melbourne, a match coinciding with the tournament's first heat wave, and the setting could not have been more appropriate. Clijsters may not go down with the all-time greats in the sport, but nearly a half-century has passed since we've seen anything like her balancing act. Evonne Goolagong won the 1980 Wimbledon in motherhood, but that was her last singles title on tour. Starting in the late 1960s, Australian great Margaret Court took three breaks from the tour to bear children -- and with the three of them in tow, she won the Australian, French and U.S. Opens in 1973.
At the moment, there's nothing to suggest that Clijsters, at 27, cannot do the same.
It was hardly surprising to see her in tears after the match, for this night marked the unburdening of emotional weight. She had never won a major outside the U.S. Open -- which many feel is the toughest to win. She had a losing record (3-4) in Grand Slam finals going in. Having revealed a growing detachment with the sport, saying this would be her last full season on tour, she found herself playing clutch, forthright tennis at all the right times.
And for the first time in her life, she truly felt a part of the landscape. The Aussies have had a nickname for Clijsters since her 2004 marriage to Lleyton Hewitt, but as she said after the match, "I finally feel like you guys can call me 'Aussie Kim.'"
For much of the evening, it seemed that history's rewards were heading straight to China. After stunningly losing the first eight points, Li made it clear that she was the superior player in a straight-up power battle from the baseline. That doesn't happen often to Clijsters, and it seemed for a while that she might be too stubborn to adjust.
As the tide turned in the second set, Clijsters made a few changes. In a match fought strictly from the baseline, "mixing it up" bears little connection to Francesca Schiavone's grand kaleidoscope. But Clijsters did stifle the pace at times, particularly with a sliced backhand, and it seemed to throw Li off her game.
Regrettably, there was more to Li's unraveling than mere tennis. She repeatedly made a point of registering her disgust with crowd noise (from the Chinese contingent, of all things), and as we heard from ESPN announcers on the scene, there was little call for such a reaction. It was not a hostile audience, merely an enthusiastic one, and this was hardly the time to manufacture a distraction.
By the end, though, Clijsters had clearly established her superiority -- a daunting prospect, certainly, for her opposition in the coming months. Top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki can't match Clijsters' magnificent blend of stout defense and penetrating winners. Nobody has a clue what's going on with Serena. Maria Sharapova's game has fallen a notch or two, and Justine Henin has abruptly retired, most likely for good.
(All of a sudden, Henin's absence doesn't seem like such a blow to Belgian tennis, at least not in the long run. On a weekend when Chinese expectations rose to the sky, Belgian teenager An-Sophie Mestach won the junior girls' singles and teamed with Demi Schuurs, of the Netherlands, to win the doubles.)
So onward she goes, charting her career path while locked in earnest conversation with her husband, Brian, about having more children within the next few years. Perhaps Clijsters' many admirers can take heart in her post-match address, when she turned to Li and said, "A few more Grand Slam finals together would be nice." It seems that this remarkable balancing act suits her just fine.